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A Race Against Time in Pakistan’s Taliban War

5 minute read
Omar Waraich / Islamabad

An airborne camera slowly pans over a range of thickly forested and jagged mountains. “This is the area of Piochar,” says Major General Athar Abbas, citing the suspected hideout of the Swat valley’s Taliban leadership. The camera stops and zooms in as crosshairs appear on the screen. “This is a training camp,” adds the military’s chief spokesman. “If you look, you can see where [the Taliban fighters] practice firing, where they live.” Small, blurred makeshift battlements are faintly visible. There is a short, sharp burst of fire from the fighter jet on which the camera is mounted, leaving a column of smoke rising from the target.

The video footage provided at a recent briefing offers a rare glimpse into the Pakistani military’s battle to drive the Taliban out of the Swat valley and its surroundings. Stung by criticism at home and abroad for dithering while the Taliban extended its grip in the country’s northwest, the military three weeks ago launched a large-scale offensive against the militants, and it claims to have scored major successes, killing over 1,000 — including a slew of mid-level Taliban commanders — and hammering their infrastructure. In the face of the ferocious assault, say Army sources, the militants are shaving off their trademark beards and fleeing the area. But the battle, which has displaced 1.5 million civilians, is far from over, and the heaviest fighting is still to come. And the military leadership fears that the longer it persists, the more likely that public support for the offensive will erode in the face of the heavy toll it has wrought. (See pictures of Pakistan beneath the surface.)

There’s no question that the Army is taking the fight to the Taliban, to an unprecedented degree. Last week it dropped commandos into Piochar, headquarters of Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah, as fighter jets targeted militants from the air. The location was first identified as a Taliban stronghold during the closing months of former President Pervez Musharraf’s term in office, but it was left unmolested until now. Although the military claims to have restored control in 80% of the Buner area, reports from the area suggest fierce fighting is still under way there — and also in Lower Dir, weeks after the military declared victory in that area. (See pictures of refugees fleeing the Swat fighting.)

Military commanders are keen to wrap up the fights in Buner and Lower Dir within coming days in order to focus their fire on Swat, where an estimated 4,000 well-armed, well-trained militants are dug in on terrain favorable to insurgents. The army claims that the local Taliban there have been reinforced by militants from Waziristan, southern Punjabis who have fought in Kashmir and jihadists from Central Asia. “Ten percent of the militants have come from outside,” General Abbas told reporters in Islamabad on Saturday. “There should be no doubt that the money, arms and equipment [are] coming from the border,” he said, in a reference to Afghanistan as an alleged route for militants traveling to reinforce those fighting in Swat. (Read “How a Terror-Linked Charity Is Finding New Life Amid Pakistan’s Refugee Crisis.”)

The military’s plan for retaking Swat — eliminating the Taliban’s command structure — has been given priority. “In an insurgency, the leadership is the center of gravity,” says General Abbas. Although the military claims to have killed a number of key local commanders during the current offensive, Fazlullah and his top lieutenants remain at large, several of them still using some 36 pirate-radio stations to issue propaganda messages. “The transmission can be heard for two to three minutes before it is jammed,” said General Abbas, “but then they begin using a different frequency.”

Aware that public support for the campaign is likely to ebb, the government and military recognize that they have a limited time frame in which to work. Unlike previous military campaigns against militants on home soil, the Swat offensive enjoys widespread public support. “We feel this was our only option, because the alternative vision presented by the Taliban — girls being flogged, people beheaded, schools burned — is not the Pakistan we want,” says Mushahid Hussain, a prominent politician, echoing a growing mood. “There is more cohesion now between the politicians, the media, civil society and the army.” In a bid to maintain that support, Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Kayani has been giving closed-door briefings to political leaders and senior Pakistani media figures.

“The army is now in the frame of mind that the longer [the operation persists], the more the difficulty will increase,” says a parliamentary leader who attended a recent briefing but was not authorized to speak publicly about the discussion. “They want this to be over in the next four to six weeks.” Winning the battle in Swat may, however, take longer than that; the military is anticipating a bloody battle for Swat’s main town of Mingora, where the Taliban are hunkered down for an urban showdown. Even if Swat is cleared, fighting could spread as retreating Taliban militants open new fronts. Fighting has flared up in new parts of Swat and in the tribal areas, as well as in parts of Bajaur cleared by the military earlier this year.

Still, the military is pressing ahead, determined that, as General Abbas put it, “the militants and terrorists will be eliminated and wiped out from the area.” But counterinsurgency experts have warned that tactical victories can be quickly reversed if they’re not consolidated through local political and reconstruction efforts. Victory over the Taliban in Swat, warns the parliamentary leader briefed by the military, “has to involve the return of the refugees and their rehabilitation. There has to be a reconstruction process. The civil administration has to re-establish itself, and they must also ensure that an adequate police force is in place.”

For now, the focus is on dealing the Taliban a decisive blow before the political consensus behind the army’s campaign begins to crumble.

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